Theater and the City is a column of student-written reviews in the ENGL 400 class taught by Deirdre O’Leary Cunningham.
This week’s entry is by Antigone Thanasias.
The most beautiful and memorable moments occur when nothing happens. It’s the silence found when waiting for an overdue phone call. The sweat of your palms when pining to speak to a crush. A feeling of warmth lingering when speaking to a stranger about the greatest joys in the life. These quiet pauses and casual sharings of words somehow become the most cherished, because for a moment, you are just being. There really is something about nothing, and the new musical “The Band’s Visit”, totally gets it. Taking the simple lives of individuals born to venerable cultures, a run down Israeli town becomes the pages of an unfinished journal, awaiting the entry of a new voice to the narrative.
Originally an Israeli film released in 2007, and later established a successful run off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company, “The Band’s Visit” has finally arrived on the Broadway stage. It all revolves around the slip a single letter. An Egyptian police band ventures to Israel for a performance at an Arab cultural center. The long journey comes to a halt as the band descends from their bus, learning from a local cafe owner, Dina (Katrina Lenk), that they are not in the city of Petah Tikva, but Beit Hatikva. Both names sounding confoundedly alike when said allowed. At first sight, the grey, distressed cement walls of the uniform apartments (realistically captured by Scott Pask) and absence of any bustle occurring clearly reads this is a town of desolace. This communal “deadness” is confirmed by Dina and two locals as they sing the comical song of salutation called “Welcome to Nowhere”. With no buses running for the rest of the day, the sun slowly begins to spill like melted gold with hints of a warm cobalt blue along the tired architecture (masterfully chosen by Tyler Micoleau). The conductor, Tewfiq (Tony Shaloub), and his band are left with no choice but to spend the night in this bare city, offered with shelter by Dina and other locals.
Between the two cultures coming together during this unexpected crossing of paths, initially there is an awkward attempt in trying to communicate. Exchanging dialogue in broken english, there is almost a romantic element to these strangers trying to understand each other. Through incomplete sentences being strung together, and relying on basic hand gestures to strike up a conversation, one sees the beauty of tolerance come together. This is best seen when an adolescent Israeli named Papi (Etai Benson) gains the suave member of the band, Haled (Ari’el Stachel), as a helpful wingman at the city’s roller derby. Laughter infects the audience as Stachel’s character teaches the inexperienced teen how to “not break the ice, but melt the ice” under the glimmering disco ball light.
As the story proceeds, touching upon various lives that occupy this fictional place of Beit Hatikva, it slowly peels back to it no longer being a place of bleakness. At the center of the stage is the installation of a rotating platform, bringing us a merry go round of lifestyles; merriment of singing a popular song at dinner, a boy waiting by the telephone booth for the call of a loved one, and the drag of cigarette after a marital dispute. Mainly, we are brought under the wing of Dina, as she gives a tour of the streets to her new companion Tewfiq. Topics of conversation range from the dark haired woman’s love for the iconic Omar Sharif, and Tewfiq’s contentment that lies with fishing. Both briefly disclose personal heartaches they have experienced in their lives, but have a mutual therapeutic relationship for music. This is an artistic element that is so frequent within the show that it becomes a character itself (carefully composed by David Yazbek). Scene by scene a band member remains nestled in the roof tops of the buildings, and pocketed at the stoops of a door to create the symphonic grace of middle eastern sounds. With the repetitious mention of the sea throughout the musical’s dialogue, this imagery becomes more and more synonymous with the music.
Forget the pomp and circumstance, this show’s success (under the direction of David Cromer) comes from how little it offers to the audience. You cannot expect a sudden death, a forbidden love, or even the betrayal of a friend. Plots such as this derive from such an extreme place, they become unrelatable, or desirable to the mind of fantasy. For “The Band’s Visit”, each character functions like a blank canvas, limitedly revealing a depth about themselves to allow the audience to slip into their shoes. Surely each character faces a different period in their lives as we look upon their evenings in Beit Hatikva, but we all come to this moment of “me, too”. Mostly we find our natural instinct to long for more, and place it upon these given characters to fulfill it. The rejection from a romantic advancement, or the release of a cry from a never ending day, it seems Beit Hatikva is a mirage of self reflection. Everything is at it seems within this musical, honestly sharing that this is as good as it gets, and it very much is. Proving that having nothing real does build character, and a perfect story.